On the Record

Snow business

On the Record with Nathan Schwartz

DeKalb County Highway Engineer Nathan Schwartz Schwartz talks about plow and salt truck rounds at his office Jan. 18.
DeKalb County Highway Engineer Nathan Schwartz Schwartz talks about plow and salt truck rounds at his office Jan. 18.

Nathan Schwartz, engineer for the DeKalb County Highway Department, jokes that when it snows, drivers that plow and salt 400 lane miles of county roads don’t stop except at stop signs.

When there’s snow on the ground, drivers start at 3 or 4 a.m. and don’t stop – except for meal breaks – until after evening rush hour. With this month’s multiple snow and ice storms and wind creating drifting snow, the highway department has been busy cleaning up after Mother Nature.

On average, the county highway department spends $500,000 a year on salt and $250,000 on diesel fuel for the winter snowplow operation. Drivers clear 190 miles of highways, or 400 lane miles and 45 bridges.

Schwartz spoke to MidWeek reporter Katrina Milton about snow removal operations at the DeKalb County Highway Department and their plan of attack for keeping the roads safe after winter storms.

Milton: What is the DeKalb County Highway Department?

Schwartz: The county highway department oversees and maintains 190 miles of highways and 45 bridges on the county highway system. Our roads connect with the 19 townships in our district who have collectively more than 800 miles of roads and 141 bridges; however, we only plow and salt county highway roads. We also oversee projects year-round, including construction, maintenance, signage, roadside mowing and snow and ice removal.

Milton: Tell me more about the snowplows.

Schwartz: We have 12 different routes and snowplows covering 400 lane miles. If one of our plows breaks down, we do have a spare snowplow truck. The trucks are used throughout the year to carry hot mix and gravel, but during the winter, they receive the most use. During the winter, they push snow and carry a full load of salt during freezing temperatures. It’s important to have spare parts handy and another truck as a spare in case a truck needs more significant work done.

Milton: What roads does the DeKalb County Highway Department plow?

Schwartz: There are multiple jurisdictions, we plow county roads including Peace Road north of Pleasant Street, Plank Road, Perry Road, Somonauk Road and Glidden Road north of Dresser Road in DeKalb. There are also township roads, state roads, municipality roads and toll roads. We often get calls about why somebody’s road wasn’t plowed, but we usually don’t know why. We receive taxpayer dollars to take care of the county highway roads. If it’s not one of the roads we plow, we might not know who maintains your road and why it wasn’t plowed.

Milton: How do does the highway department prepare for the winter?

Schwartz: Right now we’re in what we call “the winter season.” When it comes to snow, in the springtime, we place orders for salt. Before the winter season, we make sure our salt bins are full and equipment is maintained and ready to go whenever Mother Nature needs us to clear the highways. Winter season usually starts in November, when we start to have really cold nights. When temperatures are below freezing, bridges ice over before roads do because roads are heated by the ground below it. Bridges have open air below them, so it’s easier for them to become iced and frozen over. We often spray calcium chloride, a salt compound, on the bridges to keep the ice off.

Milton: What happens during a typical snowstorm?

Schwartz: Our approach to snowstorms depends on what time it starts. If the snow starts in the overnight hours, we start snow removal by 3 or 4 a.m. We hit a full round, every road once of our 190 miles of roads, or 400 lane miles. We get out there and plow every lane of road at least one time before the morning rush hour. It takes three hours to make one full round on county highways. With heavy snow or drifting, it may not look like we’ve been there, but we have.

Milton: Tell me more about how salt is applied to roads.

Schwartz: We use a calcium chloride spray application process. We spray rock salt with a liquid solution of calcium chloride as we spread it on the road. That works best in lower temperatures. Coating the salt with liquid makes it stick and stay on the road instead of salt’s tendency to bounce and roll.

Milton: When is salt spread?

Schwartz: We always use our best judgment. We may not spread salt with 30 mph winds or 50 mph wind gusts. If there’s any snow melting on the road, it turns into water. Blowing snow will stick to the wet, melting snow, turning into a frozen slush mixture that’s a big mess. It’s similar to having flour on a dry kitchen counter. If you add some water, the flour sticks to the counter’s surface.

Milton: Does salt work in all temperatures?

Schwartz: Salt is only good until it reaches a certain temperature. Salt won’t make a difference if the temperature isn’t warm enough. We use standard rock salt with a calcium chloride base. There are other salts that work better in colder weather, ones with a magnesium base. But those salts are more corrosive on concrete bridges, vehicles and metal. It’s also much more expensive and its damage is more expensive to fix.

Milton: How has this winter compared to others?

Schwartz: It’s difficult to compare one winter with another. Some winters we get little snow, but a lot of drifting and it’s still three days of plowing. For salt usage, whether it’s 8 inches or 2 inches of snow, we use the same amount of salt. An ice storm in April could use more salt than a snow storm in January. How many hours we plow or how many tons of salt is not really representative of our winters.

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